Getting “Zucked” in the ’80s

Newly Discovered Letters Shed Light on Early Cyber Censorship of LGBTQ+ People

By Tyler Albertario

It is common parlance in today’s social media landscape to refer to any censorious action taken against a specific user or posting as “being Zucked,” a reference to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. This generally holds true even when the company taking such action is not Facebook itself. And while such tech firms have come under repeated criticism for censoring content produced by vulnerable populations of people, I unearthed evidence to suggest that such practices are in fact not a product of the current age, and indeed predate the establishment of the World Wide Web itself.

Throughout the 1980’s, online service providers (OSPs), such as CompuServe, Prodigy, and Quantum Link played a crucial role in the development of the computer industry towards the modern-day Internet. Each of these OSPs offered a wide array of functions and services, such as file sharing, electronic mail, gaming, encyclopedias, and message boards, and each offered subscribers their own unique features. The undisputed industry leader at the time was CompuServe, boasting hundreds of thousands of subscribers within the first few years of its launch.

One of those subscribers was David E. Schutz, the political coordinator for the Gay Activists Alliance of New Jersey. In early 1984, he and CompuServe executives exchanged a series of letters concerning issues of censorship of LGBTQ+ speech. This exchange laid bare CompuServe’s official policy of censoring LGBTQ+ content at the time, and provides lessons applicable to contemporary discussions of Internet censorship. And now, thanks to the work of the archivists at the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn, New York, I am able to bring the contents of these letters to light for the very first time.

The exchange began in February of 1984, when Schutz decided that he would use CompuServe’s “National Electronic Bulletin Board” to post an advertisement for an upcoming gay vacation to Puerto Rico. Schutz immediately realized that his repeated attempts to post the advertisement had been deleted by one or more of the board’s moderators. Seeking answers, he sent a message on February 15th to CompuServe’s Customer Service Department requesting an explanation for why his posts about the trip were being deleted from the bulletin board.

Days later, he received the following response:

“Thank you for your inquiry of 2/15/84. Dave, your recent feedback was given to me as I am the one who deletes messages from the Bulletin Board. I have noticed your message concerning the trip several times recently and as you noticed I have deleted it. When I was given the responsibility to delete messages I was told to delete any that had references to Gays or that were considered obscene in language or content. I agree that your message did not contain anything that was obscene or in poor taste. If there are other messages that have Gay references that I am not deleting it is because they are coded in a way that I do not understand. I did not select your message in particular. I don’t know if your [sic] agree with our policy but I thought you deserved an explanation.”

Schutz immediately set about drafting a letter to CompuServe’s corporate office. The admission by the moderator that they had been directly instructed to delete any gay-related posts from the bulletin board presented interesting and unique legal questions. This was especially the case in light of the recent enactment of dozens of local ordinances protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in the provision of goods and services. Did gay and lesbian subscribers living in these jurisdictions have legal recourse to sue CompuServe for discrimination? Was an OSP such as CompuServe even bound by these laws to begin with, given the interstate and somewhat intangible nature of their business model?

These questions and more in mind, Schutz presented his draft to that following week’s meeting of the Gay Activists Alliance of New Jersey. As noted by a small note at the top of the initial letter, the membership approved it unanimously.

Schutz’s letter, dated February 21st and written on official organization letterhead, begins:

“I am a subscriber to CompuServe. It has recently come to my attention that your company is deliberately censoring subscriber messages which make any reference to the terms ‘Gay & Lesbian.’”

After recounting his exchange days before with the bulletin board moderator, Schutz explains:

“Over 40 cities and the State of Wisconsin have already enacted Gay non-discrimination statutes which apply to retail businesses. Reference to your directory indicates that CompuServe has its own dedicated telephone numbers in virtually all of these jurisdictions.”

The letter concludes with the following question:

“Mr. Wilkins, is my experience an isolated occurrence or is it the result of a methodical discrimination policy?”

The closing inquiry, depending on the nature of CompuServe’s response, may have proven instrumental in establishing the proper conditions for a legal test case. Had CompuServe responded by confirming the existence of a company-wide policy of censoring LGBTQ+ content, a judge in an applicable jurisdiction may have determined that to have been sufficient evidence that CompuServe was in violation of one of the aforementioned anti-discrimination ordinances which proscribed sexual orientation as a protected class.

And that is exactly what CompuServe did.

In a response letter dated March 2, 1984, CompuServe’s CEO Jeffrey Wilkins addressed the inquiries raised by David Schutz and the Gay Activists Alliance of New Jersey. After asserting that CompuServe is in full compliance with the various non-discrimination laws and ordinances Schutz described in his original letter, Wilkins confirms the existence of a company-wide policy of censorship:

“Our policies with regard to the bulletin board services are very clear. Since we provide services to a broad constituency of customers, we require that certain standards of expression conform to the tastes of our general audience as we perceive them. We feel that whatever people wish to communicate in their private conversations is their business, but when those communications are of a public nature, we must respectfully request that our standards of taste be followed. If people find our standards too limiting to convey their messages, there are a number of other computerized bulletin boards that they can use.”

Wilkins’ argument that CompuServe’s censorship policies merely fall under a general umbrella of the company seeking to enforce what they consider to be in good taste are an almost eerie echo of contemporary debate surrounding censorship and regulation of content on major social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. While much of the present-day discussion centers around much more specialized forms of speech such as conspiracy theories and the exact definition of what constitute calls to violence, such a blanket policy of censoring speech pertaining to a protected class of people as CompuServe appears to be admitting to in this series of correspondence is virtually unheard of in today’s Internet environment.

If Facebook or Twitter were to announce publicly that they intended to censor all speech pertaining or of specific interest to, for instance, Latinx people, such a policy would run so far afoul of extant civil rights laws that perhaps even the Roberts Court could not ignore such a brazen act.

And indeed, even in 1984, such a policy would have most likely been a legally fraught proposition to say the very least. Despite the lack of any meaningful legal precedent concerning the applicability of civil rights laws to electronic communications, CompuServe was still appearing to take a significant legal risk in announcing this policy directly to Schutz and the Gay Activists Alliance of New Jersey in the manner in which they did. This situation may have proven to be made all the more complicated by the presence of dedicated CompuServe telephone numbers in many of the local jurisdictions which had these such anti-discrimination ordinances on their books. Indeed, Schutz alludes to this tenuous legal positioning in his follow-up letter, dated March 21, 1984:

“I am not questioning CompuServe’s policy of editing obscene or sexually explicit messages, but that is not the issue here. What is at issue is your policy of arbitrary, and perhaps unlawful discrimination against your gay and lesbian subscribers who wish to use your Bulletin Board for matters relevant to their daily lives.”

Schutz further elaborates, and implies that legal action against CompuServe is being seriously contemplated:

“Mr. Wilkins, I am not an attorney but your differential treatment of matters concerning your gay and lesbian subscribers would appear to violate the nondiscrimination statutes of at least 40 municipalities and the State of Wisconsin. If your policies regarding posting of gay and lesbian notices are not revised then my only recourse will be to direct this matter to one of several national gay legal defense groups.”

Both David Schutz and Jeffrey Wilkins could not immediately be reached for comment, but there is no evidence that such a legal action ever took shape against CompuServe over this policy. This lack of action leaves one to ponder whether the social media landscape has truly changed in a substantive way since this battle from the seemingly ancient, pre-Internet era. If Jack Dorsey were to have a sudden revelation on one of his Southeast Asian meditation retreats which implored him to ban all content from Twitter produced by transgender users, is there truly any legal recourse these users would have? If Mark Zuckerberg were to be frightened by an aggressive, young, conservative member of Congress during a congressional hearing into “Zucking” all Spanish-language accounts located in the United States, what would those users be able to do? Was David Schutz’s and the Gay Activist Alliance of New Jersey’s aborted attempt to legally confront the tech giant of their era over its discriminatory censorship policy a missed opportunity to establish some much needed legal precedent on this topic, and perhaps strike a blow for the forces of non-discrimination?

It is likely that we will not discover the answer until such a policy rears its ugly head once again.

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